Sunday, November 15, 2009

Gladwell's Igon Value Problem

For years I've felt quite alone in my opinion that Malcolm Gladwell is a fake (merely one rung above Victoria Knight-McDowell and Kevin Trudeau, and only because Gladwell probably believes his own claptrap). After all, he sells a gazillion books, and speaks at TED (although Karen Amrstrong does both as well, so there you go).

That's why it was great to read Harvard Professor Steven Pinker’s review of Gladwell’s latest product, What The Dog Saw, in today's New York Times Book Review.

Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aper├žus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

...The problem with Gladwell’s generalizations about prediction is that he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead overinterprets some of its trappings... Gladwell bamboozles his readers with pseudoparadoxes...

For example, Gladwell observes that teaching qualification tests are imperfect indicators of success, and concludes therefore that they shouldn’t be used at all. Instead “teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree,” whose first year results should serve as the basis for future employment. That is a provocative sound bite that sounds wise if you assess it for no longer than it takes to Blink! But Gladwell neglects to consider the costs of such a tactic, nor the impact on the poor students who are subjected to all those failed first year experiments. Who has time for this? By Gladwell’s logic, based on their imperfections we should dispense entirely with the police department, antibiotics and Hillary Clinton.

Does today's book review mean that my view of Gladwell is no longer an Outlier? If Pinker reaches enough readers, perhaps we'll see a Tipping Point


  1. You are in a small but good company, e.g.:

  2. Gladwell is a fake, much like Tom Friedman. The real problem is the persuasive lack of respect for a technical education. People think we just need a few moderately paid technical types in San Jose or maybe Bangalore, and then we'll just get some forceful business personality type to tap that well spring to make money. We don't really need to understand anything. We just have to have a certain personality and read and write a lot.

    I got a kick out of a recent Tom Friedman column saying "carbon molecules" are responsible for the global warming. Now this isn't as roll on the ground laughing as say Igon Value, but I couldn't help but picture all those bucky balls floating around our atmosphere warming up the planet.

  3. My wife read Blink and after her verbal review I decided to skip it. I'd just read and been really disappointed with Freakanomics and Blink sounded worse.

  4. I am in the same camp as you. For kicks read his response here:
    Addressing only one simple instance of pinker's argument but not the essence. I rest my case

  5. Anonymous3:40 AM

    I don't agree.

    To be a fake you first have to claim, even tacitly, to be something (that you're not).

    I read all 4 Gladwell's books and I haven't found him pretending to be something that he's not: a philosopher, a sociologist, a mathematician, etc.

    What he is, is a fantastic storyteller. He brings us these really cool stories that happened to amazing people... but it all seems to have happened down our own block, to our own neighbours and friends - and yet we were too blind to spot it!

    That's what he's great at - and why I like reading him so much.


  6. I enjoy your blog, but I'm also going to disagree. I suspect that after some additional consideration you may regret calling Gladwell a fraud - even if you disagree with most of what he says...calling him a fraud goes too far and you are better than that.

    I think that Gladwell tries to bring numbers and logic to ultimately squishy topics...sometimes it works and other times he misses, but the endeavor is an enjoyable ride.

    Still enjoy the blog though.

  7. Anonymous5:18 AM

    It's pretty ridiculous to call Gladwell a fake. It sorta comes across as the type of over-generalized statement that you criticism him for making. Gladwell's books are designed to be accessible to the largely scientifically ignorant public.

    Which is worse: having a flawed public champion of the social scientists, or none at all?

  8. He's called a fake because he pretends knowledge that he doesn't actually possess. This fraud defines him as a fake quite well.

    Having him as a public champion misses the point that science is not about the scientists, but the techniques and valid results. Given that he presents invalid results and acts in a way that others may emulate in hopes of appearing wise, this is not what is desired at all.